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December 2017 Musings

Like many before it, this article begins with an Old Zen Story.
After ten years of training, Tenno achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nan-in. When he walked in, the master greeted him with a question, "Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?" 
"Yes," Tenno replied. 
"Tell me," the master continued, "did you place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the right?"
Tenno did not know the answer, and realized that he had not yet attained full awareness.

So he became Nan-in's student and studied under him for ten more years.
--From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
The ego, our ordinary initiator of action, is an ephemeral construction, which is formed by factors operating far beneath the level of the Source and which in an unenlightened state of awareness represents a kind of blockage or impediment to the interplay of fundamental cosmic forces. In other words, because of our identification of ourselves with the ego, what we ordinarily call action or doing cuts us off from the complete reception of conscious energies in our bodies and actions.” --Jacob Needleman
As Zen Awareness Practitioners, we are on a quest for “compassionate comprehension that dissipates delusion.” We recognize that we don’t see the world as it is, that our view is distorted, and that distortion causes suffering. The path to freedom requires us to develop a capacity to see differently.  Direct experience, seeing what is, as it is, entails surrendering what distorts how we see.
As the old Zen story illustrates, the tricky part of a practice of awareness is that we can never assume we have attained “full awareness.” What distorts never stops distorting, and wavering attention brings “delusion” back into the picture. When that happens, not only are we not seeing how things are (where did I put that umbrella?), we’re no longer aware that our seeing is “distorted.” 
On such occasions, Practice, like Nan-in, steps in and asks a question that reveals an unexamined assumption that prompts us to look again, perhaps deepening our commitment to a practice of inquiry. The purpose of a practice of inquiry is to be in a process of inquiry. We never actually “know” anything so we practice paying attention to everything in every moment. In some mystical way, by questioning the “how” of what we “know,” we’re always in the “not knowing,” which is the experience of thisherenow.
So here is a place of inquiry, a Nan-in-esque question from Practice:
“Have you really looked?”
In many groups, in coaching interactions, in Socratic email classes, etc., we bring our “process” to the Guide/facilitator, asking for the next place to look. The prerequisite to being facilitated is to have explored our experience. We describe what we’ve seen so that we can be assisted to become aware of what we’ve not yet seen. But do we do our part? Do we really look? 
Many of us, especially those who have been around Practice for some time and have assimilated the language of practice, tend to describe our experience in practice terms.
I am watching this karma to…
Conditioning said
Ego was screaming at the situation…
The Mentor said…
I could have felt bad but I redirected my attention
I chose unconditional love instead and all was well…
But wait a minute! Are we really practicing awareness, seeing what is, as it is? Are we really paying attention to our experience?  Or have we stopped “looking” because we “know” and can describe what we’re experiencing in practice terms?  Have we lost the information in the moment because the labels “ego,” “conditioned mind,” “self-hate,” and even “Mentor” have obscured our ability to be in inquiry?
This is where we come back to the one rule: The point of paying attention is
to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer
                        SO WE CAN DROP THAT AND END SUFFERING.
We can suspect we have stopped looking when we bring the same “process” to guidance over and over again. For example:
I am watching this process: I want to meditate, then I listen to a voice that distracts me from keeping my commitment to meditate, then I don’t meditate, then I feel bad for being an awful spiritual practitioner. But then it drops in that as a Sangha we gave up feeling bad, and so I pick up my recorder and talk to the Mentor and redirect my attention to Unconditional Love. I know what resists what’s good for me is ego, and ego is not me. And then I recommit to meditation. And I still feel so much resistance to meditation that I don’t meditate.
How can this person not be practicing awareness? Clearly, they’re aware of the voices and what they say, they’re aware of the battering cycle, they know not to “feel bad,” they have an R/L practice, can redirect their attention to Unconditional Love and are committed to meditation. How much closer to enlightenment can you get, you might ask!
It’s not that the person isn’t practicing awareness, it’s that they are still suffering.
If I am suffering because I get talked out of meditating and I am aware of how I’m talked out of meditating, it’s not sufficient to report on the process that stops me from meditating, even if I do so in the most accurate of practice terms! I may be paying attention to how ego causes me to suffer, but I have not attained “full awareness” because I’m not using awareness of “how I am caused to suffer” to “wake up and end suffering.”
The inquiry has to continue. Now I become curious…
How can meditating happen? How can I pay closer attention so that I am present when the thought arises that distracts me, but I sit down and meditate anyway? What more can I see about this process? What is being kept in place by this suffering? What do I need to let go that I am still clinging to? How can I get to loving the human so much that I’m willing to do what it takes to take care of her/him more than the ego payoff I get from not meditating? Can I train myself to sit on the cushion whenever I remember that I have not meditated, even if it is in the wee hours of the morning and I really don’t feel like getting out of bed? Is that even possible? Why am I not open to that? 
If we are exploring these questions in guidance, can you imagine what rich conversations we could be having about “not having full awareness”?
When Practice challenges us in this way, it’s not to discourage us or belittle our efforts. It’s simply to recall us to what we are setting out to attain, which is nothing less than ending suffering. When it’s brought to our attention that we cannot state whether the shoes are to the left or right of the umbrella, we have a choice: to humbly recommit to another ten years of study or remain in the process of creating and clinging to beliefs.
There is no “wrong choice.” But there is only one choice that leads to ending suffering.
Will we make that choice?
We get to find out, if we are curious.